by Marion Nestle
May 23 2014

GMO labels cost families $800/year: Guess who paid for the study?

Yesterday, Food Navigator reported that Cornell economists calculated that GMO labels would cost the average family of four a whopping $800 per year.

This seemed so improbable that I immediately wondered:  Who paid for it?

I clicked on the link to the study: Bingo!

The work on this report was supported financially by the Council for Biotechnology Information.

You won’t find the list of companies and groups that support the Council on its website, but Source Watch fills the gap.

I am increasingly alarmed by the increasing extent of industry research sponsorship—it’s become a huge issue in  studies of nutrition, diet, and health.

The influence of funding source on research outcomes is so predictable—many studies have now shown that industry-funded studies almost invariably produce results that favor the sponsor—that I’m batting nearly 100% on conflict-of-interest  checks, of which this GMO study is a particularly blatant example.

It’s not that industry pays investigators to find the desired answers to questions.  It’s more complicated than that.  It has to do with the way investigators ask and try to answer the research questions.  The industry favored biases get built into the study’s assumptions and controls, often (I think) unconsciously.

This study, for example, is based on an elaborate set of assumptions leading to the $800 per family estimate.  Other assumptions might give different results.   The authors do not discuss the limitations of their estimates, nor are they required to in this type of report.

But I’m willing to hazard a guess that independently funded studies would come to considerably lower estimates.

Moral: if a study produces surprising results that favor an industry position, look hard to see who sponsored it.

Addition, May 24:

A reader sent in further information about the Council for Biotechnology Information:

Council for Biotechnology Information

1201 Maryland Avenue, SW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024 USA

Phone: 202-962-9200 web site: http://gmoanswers.com

(CBI: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Council_for_Biotechnology_Information.

Experts: http://gmoanswers.com/experts. Founding members and supporting partners:

http://gmoanswers.com/about. There are also offices in Saskatoon (SK, Canada)

(http://whybiotech.ca)  and Mexico City (AgroBio Mexico: http://agrobiomexico.org.mx.)

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  • Tess @ Tips on Life & Love

    I agree. However, I think that if a study is going to be sponsored (as most are), there should be more transparency.

  • Novagene

    There are additional studies on I522 that GMO labeling cause food costs to rise.

    Washington Office of Financial Management
    Washington Research Council
    Washington State Academy of Sciences

    They seem independent. First report is by Washington’s government. I’m open to any information demonstrating otherwise. Cost estimates vary. But there are zero published papers suggesting that cost won’t rise. If anyone knows of one, now’s your chance.

    The Yes on I522 campaign promised that costs “should” not rise based on a European comparison that doesn’t necessarily reflect the food infrastructure in the U.S. “Should” is no guarantee. Pro-labeling campaigners cannot, in honesty, claim that cost will not rise.

    With the conventional and organic food industries dumping money into campaigns and the government resources it takes to process legislation, it’s unlikely that these costs are not ultimately passed to consumers and taxpayers.

    Mandatory GMO labeling most likely will increase food costs, perhaps “considerably lower estimates,” perhaps more. The amount of increase doesn’t matter.

    Any increase in food costs to legislate frivolity is unacceptable when there are already 46 million Americans on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

  • David

    As someone said to me today “conflict of interest does not immediately invalidate results.” Look at the methods and data. Additionally, if Marion Nestle were to read at least the summary she would’ve seen that the potential increased costs to labeling GMOs ranges from ~$50 to over $1500 for a family of four depending on many variables and factors. The study does not say that costs will automatically be high but that the range of costs will depend on what producers do to avoid unfounded consumer fears of GMOs and if consumers will even care about such labels. Reads like many other reports by government, pro-science groups, and anti-GMO groups that show costs will go up but amount is currently unknown.

  • Ginger

    Isn’t this essentially the same as when manufacturers were required to start listing trans fats on nutrition labels? Did that cost consumers $800 per year? Companies seem happy to roll out icons that claim something is gluten free, even when it’s naturally gluten free, icons that report how many grams of whole grains are in a product – as a weird promotional tool, and any other nutritional gimmick of the season, without complaining that it will cost more money. What am I missing?

  • Novagene

    It’s not the printing of labels.

    Supposedly, it’s the added administration of tracking and segregating raw ingredients.

    Also producers may be compelled to make ingredient changes to avoid a GMO label stigma since the Right to Know campaign is essentially a public health scare.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    If companies don’t want to segregate non-GMO grain from GMO-grain, they can choose to use the may contain GMO label.

    If they’re concerned about the GMO label stigma than they can use their funds to educate the public.

    If the public still isn’t buying, then maybe the companies should conduct studies that determine why, rather than just assume everyone is an ignorant Luddite.

    Finally, when companies themselves indulge in misleading tactics, no surprise if people push back.

    All of this does nothing more than demonstrate that the mandatory GMO labeling is finally triggering the discussions we should have had before the use of GMO became so prevalent.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    The WA Office of Financial Mgmt is focusing on costs of testing. The Vermont law also included funding for costs of testing and implementation of the law. This isn’t related to actual costs to consumers for food labeling.

    The WA Research Council focused primarily on the same thing–cost to set up program.

    And the Research Council’s findings are just as flawed as the study referenced in this writing: it is making an assumption that manufacturers will go the route to get non-GMO products rather than label their products with GMO.

    That just demonstrates that producers have relied on obfuscation and lies rather than science all these years. If GMO is so great, sell it. Prove it. Get out there and educate.

    But don’t hide it.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    And GMO labeling is unrelated to SNAP.

  • OldTech

    I am a statistician and it is well known that how a question in a survey is phrased can greatly influence the results. This is such a problem, including in nutritional surveys, that even a highly significant result is still wrong. In programming we simply call it garbage in garbage out.

  • Novagene

    Yes. Initial testing and setup will raise costs that will likely be passed to consumers/taxpayers for which you present no counter research or strong argument.

    If GMO is so great, sell it.

    They do. It’s a popular choice for farmers and biotech been thoroughly scrutinized and received safety approval from a long list of credible science organizations.

    Industry attempts to educate are disparaged as “obfuscation and lies” by you. Marion Nestle is biased against it as well, that’s what this blog post is even about. However, even she has no strong objection against the safety determined by credible science. Directives from you for industry to educate as something they don’t do or as their best and only recourse are disingenuous.

    Spare the pretense and just say that you believe that current GMOs should be banned.

  • Novagene

    Mandatory GMO labels are framed as a food social justice issue, so yes, questions on increasing food prices and how it affects low income families are absolutely related.

    To not see the relationship is to willfully not care which undermines insistence that GMO labeling is a food social justice cause.

    GMO labeling proponents would be better off at least acknowledging that costs may raise and offer justifications why this is acceptable, not deflect concerns with denial or indifference and then wonder why the public votes down measures like Prop37 and I522.

  • Novagene

    That’s a nice list of tenuous ifs. Ifs from studies you don’t like are flawed. Ifs from you are indisputable. With both set of ifs, no wonder the food industry opposes being forced into such uncertainty for a non-problem that already has solutions.

    Don’t like GE? Consumers can choose Organic, Fairtrade, or Non-GMO voluntary labels. Their market presence should fulfill your criterion for “triggering the discussions.”

    You have made it clear that legal GE labels aren’t about constructive law, but an ideological motivation to punish the food industry for perceived wrongs and to bypass the science consensus in order to “teach the controversy.”

    Your endgame, like most mandatory GMO-label advocates, is to facilitate boycotts and bans

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  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Fairtrade has nothing to do with GMO.

    And there’s a difference between Organic and conventional but non-GMO–not everyone wants organic, some just don’t want GMO.

    And when you can no longer bring up a legitimate argument, you reduce my concerns to an emotional level and then dismiss it.

    That’s little different than organizations supporting GMO deciding we don’t need to know anything–don’t worry our pretty little heads about it.

    Non-argument

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    In whose book are GMO labels framed as food social justice? Of all the reasons given in the Vermont GMO law, I don’t believe social justice was one.

    You keep making up arguments folks interested in GMO labels supposedly have, yet they have absolutely no connection to the reality.

    As for actual costs to the labeling, no the costs should not be high. Costs haven’t been high with any other mandatory label change.

    If companies decide they would rather use non-GMO products than attach GMO to the label, well now, that is an interesting discussion to have. Time to have it.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    The costs are to the state. It is the state absorbing the costs. It is the costs to set up the program that Vermont incorporated into its bill.

    When industry players spend 65 million dollars to produce dubious ads incorporating scare tactics to fight GMO labeling laws, then yes, I’d say obfuscation and lies is about an appropriate phrase.

    Consumers are a part of the food chain. It’s about time we had a say about what goes into it, and why.

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  • Novagene

    Fair Trade USA FAQ

    Are Fair Trade Certified products also non-GMO (not genetically modified)?

    Yes.

    Consumers have three voluntary market choices to avoid GMOs that may or may not overlap. Two of those label choices are for non-GMO but not necessarily organic.

    Fourth non-label option is the Internet; even smartphones with apps where you can scan products. Fifth non-label option is being an educated consumer which may require getting information from someplace other than a food package. Avoiding GE wheat is easy because there is none on the market.

    Your above arguments for labeling were “push back” of companies (punishment) and “discussions.” Emotional surrogates for independent concerns and not constructive reasons for the specific legislation.

  • Novagene

    Food Justice Boston

    Rally for World Food Justice! 1-yr Anniversary of March Against Monsanto… GMO facts and Labeling

    But I’ll agree with you that GMO labeling isn’t about food justice.

    Thank you for the cost reassurance but best not chance raising prices for less well-off just to placate the mostly affluent who already have an abundance of options.

    Shockingly, when erroneous Vermont legislation declares labels are required because of:

    a lack of consensus regarding the validity of the research and science surrounding the safety of genetically engineered foods

    Producers who are interested in remaining profitable, not necessarily in defending science or choosing political sides, may consider sourcing different ingredients.

  • Novagene

    There is little reason to trust the economics of a bill predicated on denying science consensus.
    Jewish families following kashrut purchase additional sets of pots, plates, and utensils. With current commingling of commodities the food industry will need a similar arrangement with silos, trucks, and warehouses.
    The $1,500,000 the VT law is supposed to have on hand is for the state’s “liabilities, “implementation,” and “administrations.” Not for food producers.

    Industry should educate people but it’s wrong for them to spend money on messages you don’t like. Gotcha.

    Shelley Powers said,

    Consumers are a part of the food chain. It’s about time we had a say about what goes into it, and why.

    Close enough to a yes, you believe GMOs should be banned. No reason hiding it.

    If you like transparency, then be transparent and ditch the food justice platitudes and doublespeak.

  • Don Hall bearcreekresearch

    don hall of bearcreekresearch

    Comment by PSRAST

    Our position is now (2007) that all GE foods should be withdrawn from the market immediately because of their inherent unsafety.

    The Number One Method to create money is to claim to extend natural DNA recombinant technology into a revolutionary technology scheme, introduce New Genetic Information, and POSSIBLY TRANFER GENE ENCODING between unnatural and abnormal breeding regimes. don hall

    Those who wish to minimize to the public the revolutionary nature of recombinant DNA techniques generally claim that they are a part of a continuum of methods that can be used to bring about genetic improvements in food source organisms. On this basis, they argue that it would be inappropriate to subject genetically engineered foods to additional regulatory scrutiny or to require these foods to be labeled as genetically engineered. However, a systematic and scientific comparison of recombinant DNA technologies and other methods makes it clear that they are not part of a continuum.

    It is true that the goals of recombinant DNA methodologies are the same as those of traditional breeding methods, namely, the development of new varieties of food source organisms with improved characteristics. However, recombinant DNA techniques stand by themselves as a distinct and revolutionary technology for accomplishing these goals.

    Traditional breeding methods are designed to select preexisting genetic traits from the gene pool of a species or closely related species. No new information is actually created in these processes. Instead, genes already existing in the gene pool of a species and its close, reproductively compatible relatives are merely brought together within the same individual. In contrast, genetic engineering alters the information content of the gene pool of a species. This is accomplished either by adding to the gene pool new genes, often derived from a widely divergent species, or by altering the information content of genes already in the gene pool.

    Through this powerful technology, genetic information can be transferred between species that would never exchange information under natural conditions or under traditional breeding regimes. For instance, recombinant DNA methods have made it possible to transfer the gene encoding the flounder antifreeze protein into tomatoes, in hopes of increasing resistance to freezing. Natural genetic and reproductive boundaries normally prevent such exchanges, and even prevent crosses between close relatives such as the tomato, the potato, and the eggplant.

    Like traditional breeding methods, the other methods listed in the US Discussion Paper-cross-hybridization, embryo rescue, and somaclonal variation-do not involve the introduction of new genetic information into the gene pool of the food-producing organism. The first of these is a variation on traditional breeding methods, the second is a cell culture-based method for generating many genetically identical plants from a single elite specimen, and the third is a variation on this approach.

    Because recombinant DNA techniques introduce new genetic information into the gene pool, they do not exist on a continuum with these other methods but are of a distinctly different character and should be treated separately.

    4. The biotechnology industry, research scientists, consumers and the public media frequently refer to the applied use of recombinant DNA techniques as genetic engineering. For instance, one of the trade journals for the biotechnology industry is titled Genetic Engineering News.

    For this discussion, foods, food ingredients, and additives produced through recombinant DNA technologies will be referred to as “genetically engineered,” “recombinant,” or “transgenic” foods. [1]

    5. Appropriate, consistent labeling of foods, food ingredients or additives produced through biotechnology, regardless of the methodology employed, will be important to Member States of the Codex for several reasons. The first of these is to protect the health of the public. The second is to provide the public with adequate information regarding their food supply. The third is to create harmony and eliminate barriers to commercial distribution of genetically engineered foods.

    Appropriate labeling is also essential to ensure that consumers understand the attributes of the products they purchase. This allows them to make knowledgeable decisions regarding the potential impact of specific food products on their health. Although there are mechanisms other than labeling by which consumers can be informed and educated about genetically engineered foods, labeling is by far the most straight forward, certain, and economical method for informing the consumer that a certain food or food product has been produced through genetic engineering.

    Labeling should done only as a temporary measure until the withdrawal is implemented unless immediate withdrawal cannot be carried through.

    GMO Facts Consumers Must Be Made Aware Of include the following research by Dr. John Fagan:

    Because recombinant DNA techniques introduce new genetic information into the gene pool, they do not exist on a continuum with these other methods but are of a distinctly different character and should be treated separately.

    4. The biotechnology industry, research scientists, consumers and the public media frequently refer to the applied use of recombinant DNA techniques as genetic engineering. For instance, one of the trade journals for the biotechnology industry is titled Genetic Engineering News.

    For this discussion, foods, food ingredients, and additives produced through recombinant DNA technologies will be referred to as “genetically engineered,” “recombinant,” or “transgenic” foods. [1]

    5. Appropriate, consistent labeling of foods, food ingredients or additives produced through biotechnology, regardless of the methodology employed, will be important to Member States of the Codex for several reasons. The first of these is to protect the health of the public. The second is to provide the public with adequate information regarding their food supply. The third is to create harmony and eliminate barriers to commercial distribution of genetically engineered foods.

    Appropriate labeling is also essential to ensure that consumers understand the attributes of the products they purchase. This allows them to make knowledgeable decisions regarding the potential impact of specific food products on their health. Although there are mechanisms other than labeling by which consumers can be informed and educated about genetically engineered foods, labeling is by far the most straight forward, certain, and economical method for informing the consumer that a certain food or food product has been produced through genetic engineering.

    II. NEW DEVELOPMENTS

    6. Several foods and food ingredients or additives developed through modern biotechnology have been commercialized. For example, tomatoes with delayed ripening characteristics and virus resistant squash have been commercialized in the USA. Other examples are the recombinant enzymes, such as alpha-amylase and chymosin, derived from various genetically engineered microbes that have been commercialized for use in industrial processes.

    7. Agricultural products, including new varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and by-products such as vegetable oils derives from plants modified via recombinant DNA techniques are now being distributed , and a diversity of other genetically engineered foods are under development. By far the largest class of these, accounting for nearly 50% of all genetically engineered food products, are plants resistant to chemical herbicides and fungicides such as DDT and bromoxynil. Others have been designed to be resistant to insects (e.g. Bacillus thuringiensis delta-endotoxin) or viruses (e.g. potato Y virus), and others have been engineered to alter food or food organism characteristics in commercially useful ways. Examples of this are the development of tomatoes, mentioned above, with delayed fruit softening (antisense polygalacturonase), and the development of canola high in stearic acid. Work is beginning aimed at generating foods that might have health or nutritional benefits, such as reduced allerg enic potential (e.g. rice).

    8. A number of plants have been modified to express copies of animal genes, for instance a flounder antifreeze gene has been introduced into a tomato plant. Other examples which are intended for more immediate commercialization are the introduction of human and animal cytokine genes into tobacco. It is envisioned that these plants might be used as factories for the commercial production of these polypeptide hormones for sale as drugs.

    Applications of genetic engineering that introduce animal genes into plants raise ethical and religious concerns with certain segments of the population in that the use of foods, and possibly medicines, produced by such plants can be in conflict with culturally- religiously- and ethically-based dietary guidelines.

    The commercialization of foods and food ingredients derived from plants that carry animal genetic information has not yet commenced. However, this is inevitable within the next few years. Thus, any adequate policy regarding the labeling of genetically engineered foods must take these organisms into account. This is especially the case for an international policy, since animal-plant transgenics conflict with the dietary restrictions of at least 30% of the world population.

    9. Animals modified by modern biotechnology are rapidly approaching commercial distribution. Fish genetically engineered for rapid growth or cold tolerance are likely to be among the first such organisms brought to market. Animals genetically engineered for the commercial production of hormones are also under development, while drugs for human use produced in genetically engineered bacteria are already in widespread use (for instance recombinant human insulin). Drugs produced using similar technologies for use in animals are also commercially available at this time. For example, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH), which is produced by fermentation in bacteria and administered to dairy cows to increase milk production, is used commercially in the USA. It should be noted that a number of harmful effects of this hormone have surfaced subsequent to its commercialization, which were not anticipated during development. In addition to increased mastitis and reduced reproductive success, in rbGH-tre ated cows, farmers have found that the metabolic demands placed on the cows physiology by rbGH-accelerated milk production can, in conjunction with climactic and other stresses, lead to wasting and death. In response to these problems, American farmers are already reducing their use of this product. Research has also indicated that milk from rbGH-treated cows is of reduced nutritional value and safety. It contains elevated levels of white blood cells (pus) and antibiotics (used in treating mastitis). Consequently, rbGH milk is currently under review by the CODEX Committee on Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Foods. Milk from rbGH-treated cows also contains increased levels of insulin growth factor (IGF1), which has been implicated in breast and colon cancer. The emergence of these problems subsequent to commercialization serves as an example of the tendency, inherent in genetically engineered products, to manifest unanticipated problems or side-effects. This tendency is central to the need for mandatory labelin g of genetically engineered foods and food ingredients.

    10. To date the plants, animals, and microbes described above are single gene modifications accomplished via recombinant DNA techniques. Plants and microbes modified through recombinant DNA techniques also frequently contain selectable or screenable marker genes linked to the gene of interest.

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